Whence comes the witch?

So asked Jules Michelet in his 1862 book, La Sorcière. His answer: “I say unhesitatingly: from times of despair.”

In 1971, Henry Kamen, writing in The Iron Century: Social Change in Europe, 1550-1660, put Michelet’s contention into modern terms:

Sorcery, Michelet argued, took its origin in times of depression, both economic and personal. Sorcery would come in times of war, of famine, of economic and social crisis, of loss of faith, certainty and orientation. Hence the great witch hunts during the civil wars in France, during the Thirty Years War in Germany, and during the oprichnina in Russia.

Cover of The Hangman's Daughter, by Oliver Pötzsch

Cover of The Hangman’s Daughter, by Oliver Pötzsch

My interest in the subject is mostly literary. A character in my forthcoming novel watches a young girl burn at the stake for the crime of witchcraft. I also just finished reading The Hangman’s Daughter, a fabulous novel by Oliver Potzsch about a witch scare in the Bavarian town of Schongau in the year 1659.

But today the idea took a dramatic turn as I read of the witch-burning in Papua New Guinea, which reminded me that such incidents are not mere relics of the past.

Assailants stripped, tortured and bound a woman accused of witchcraft, then burned her alive in front of hundreds of witnesses in a Papua New Guinea town, police said Friday after one of the highest profile sorcery-related murders in this South Pacific island nation.

Bystanders watch as a woman accused of witchcraft is burned alive in the Western Highlands provincial capital of Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea. Photo: Post Courier via AP

Bystanders watch as a woman accused of witchcraft is burned alive in the Western Highlands provincial capital of Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea. Photo: Post Courier via AP

Whence comes this witch? In 1998, Gabriele Stürzenhofecker published Times Enmeshed: Gender, Space, and History among the Duna of Papua New Guinea. “Witchcraft,” she wrote, “is conceived of as a predominantly female power, and men see it as threatening their control over women.”

The Associated Press reported that the woman killed on Friday “had been accused of sorcery by relatives of a 6-year-old boy who died in the hospital the day before.” The victim’s husband has been described as “the prime suspect.”

She was tortured with a hot iron rod, bound, doused in gasoline, then set alight on a pile of car tires and trash in the Western Highlands provincial capital of Mount Hagen, Kakas said.

Why such a heinous crime occurred is almost irrelevant. The fact that it occurred at all in the 21st century is revealing. Stürzenhofecker’s findings are academic, but interesting nonetheless. In Chapter 6, The Enemy Within: Witchcraft, Consumption and Agency, she writes:

The overall control of relations between the sexes has become characterized by a pervasive uncertainty, largely created out of the collapse of ritual sanctions that in the past men were able to impose on the actions of women. … [Men perceive] that they now have no means of effectively countering the activities of witches, still less of utilizing them for their local political purposes against their enemies.

She goes on to describe the deep existential fear experienced by the people she studied: that “their very selves, their individualities, may be destroyed by a witch.”

This fear is symbolized by the idea that the witch may eat one’s vital inner organs, such as the heart or the liver. It is signaled even more strongly in the notion that a witch may carry away a person’s tini, which expresses his or her individuality as well as the source of his or her life.

Such ideas are foreign and repulsive to us “enlightened” westerners.

Or are they? As I read about the poor woman burned alive half a world away, I was reminded of something that began less than a day’s drive from where I live: the Kern County child sex abuse scandal.

The National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of Michigan Law and Northwestern Law, describes the case which began in 1980.

From 1984 through 1986 at least 30 defendants were convicted of child sex abuse and related charges and sentenced to long prison terms in a series of inter-related cases in Kern County, California, and an additional 8 defendants accepted plea bargains that kept them out of prison. Over time, 20 of the defendants who were sentenced to prison were exonerated, the earliest in 1991 the latest in 2005.  In most of these exonerations the children who had testified that they had been abused recanted their testimony. In all of the exonerations there was evidence that the complaining witnesses – some as young as four years old – had been coerced or persuaded by the authorities make false accusations.

The Kern County cases are the oldest and largest of several groups of prosecutions that occurred in a wave of child sex abuse hysteria that swept through the country in the 1980s and early 1990s. Some (but not all) of these cases included allegations of satanic rituals. Many focused on day care centers. Nationally, there have been dozens of exonerations in child sex abuse hysteria cases.

In 2004, the New York Times published an account of another scandal that erupted in Bakersfield in 1983.

One June afternoon, a sheriff’s deputy named Conny Ericsson, along with Velda Murillo, a social worker with the county’s Child Protective Services, came to Eddie’s house to talk to him about a possible neighborhood sex ring. … That day, Ericsson and Murillo told Mr. and Mrs. Sampley that they needed to speak to their son alone. As Karen Sampley tried to listen through a heating vent in the kitchen, the investigators asked Eddie about John Stoll. They told him that other boys said Mr. Stoll did something sexual to Eddie and that Eddie had seen Mr. Stoll do bad things to other kids, too. ”I kept telling them no, that nothing happened,” Sampley remembers. ”I didn’t understand what they were talking about.” Murillo and Ericsson described sex acts that embarrassed the 8-year-old boy, and he started crying. ”I kept telling them, ‘No, no,’ but it wasn’t working,” he now says.

From California, a wave of prosecutions swept across the country. Says the Times, “within two years the investigations of Stoll and the McMartin teachers in Manhattan Beach, Calif., were under way. The hysteria began creeping across the country, to Maplewood, N.J. (Wee Care Day Nursery), to Malden, Mass. (Fells Acres), and to Great Neck, Long Island, where the documentary ‘Capturing the Friedmans’ takes place.”

I wonder: Except for the immediacy of Friday’s gruesome death, what separates the hysteria in Papua New Guinea from the hysteria in America? Not much.

In New Guinea a woman, accused of killing a 6-year-old boy with witchcraft, died on a trash heap. In America, men and women convicted of satanic sexual abuse of children died in prison.

Whence comes the witch? Maybe there is no answer to that disturbing question, but I have no doubt that we’ll be asking it again in the future. No matter what anyone says, human nature hasn’t changed much since the dawn of history.

The Times interviewed James Wood, a psychologist at the University of Texas at El Paso “who studies interview techniques used with children.”

Still, discredited child-sex rings like McMartin actually may not be a bogeyman of the past. Some parents, therapists and child-protection professionals continue to believe ritual sex abuse took place at McMartin preschool. “In 10 to 15 years, there will be an attempt to rehabilitate the ritual abuse scare,” Wood says. “You can bet on it.”

Today is February 9, 2013, about eight and a half years since the Times ran their story.

Whence comes the witch?

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Stuff from my Notebook #1

The practice of writing down my ideas in a notebook started a few years ago. When I was younger, I hated the idea. Now that I’m old(er) the habit is bearing fruit. For instance, on page 11 of the notebook my wife gave me for our anniversary (paper), I find this:

1634: England’s government begins to use the common hangman to burn books, as a way of intimidating heretics. Daniel Dafoe heard a book publisher remark that this was the best way to boost sales.

Since my notebook is just for ideas, I sometimes don’t include the source (a habit I hope won’t bite me later). Like lice, which appear later on in the form of this idea:

Book idea. The History of Itching. A story of the human condition. Folklore remedies, devices, social taboos. Pleasure and pain, fetishes. Dogs and the “robot leg”. Do amphibians itch? But there’s more! The book comes with a complimentary back-scratcher from Indonesia, hand-picked from the finest quality bamboo!

Re-reading the idea, I searched the Web and found an article at Scientific American, Of lice and men: An itchy history.

I do believe there are some new ideas under the sun, but I don’t claim to have many unique ones myself. I’ll be posting them here occasionally, for whatever they’re worth…